PRINCESSES IN PRISON
Christopher Howse on the relatives
of Haile Selassie who have been shut in a room for 14 years
IN 1950 Sybil Desta was a sporty Bet- jemanesque girl who liked tennis and messing about on the river. She had just gone up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She was different from the 60 others in her year: she was black and she was a princess. Sybil was the grand-daughter of the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and had been brought up in England since she was a toddler, when her family fled from the Abyssinian war against Italy.
Sybil is now kept in a room in Addis Ababa about 15' by 12' with nine other women who are relatives or connections of the deposed emperor. None of them has been tried, and they have been held there for 14 years. 'The ceiling was covered with a yellowish cloth and was torn in places, and rats used to fall in from the roof onto our beds. It was a constant battle to keep any form of hygiene, since the prison seemed to be the breeding ground for fleas and rats,' said Rebecca Asrate Kassa, a cousin of Sybil's, who was released in 1983.
Rebecca Asrate Kassa kept quiet about the condition of her imprisoned relatives until late last year for fear of antagonising the Ethiopian government. Since then she has been supported by a group of English women who were friends of the princesses during their school and college days in this country. Every month they had been send- ing about £1,000 to Ethiopia to buy food and bedding for the prisoners, as neither are provided by their captors. The English group of supporters also refrained from a public campaign, following advice from the Foreign Office. Then in September last year a new constitution was promulgated in Ethiopia. Article 44 stated that anyone arrested was to be brought before the courts within 48 hours. Hopes that this could mean release for the princesses came to nothing, as had so many expectations of an amnesty during the years before. But at last their friends felt free to speak out. One evening last week, as they do every month, a group stood in vigil outside the Ethiopian embassy in London.
It is not as if the women held were political activists. Indeed the official line of the Ethiopian authorities has all along been that they are being held for their own protection (although Rebecca Asrate Kas- sa found on her release that papers relating to her imprisonment accused her of being 'a potential counter-revolutionary'). They all want to leave Ethiopia when they are released, for some have children living in England or America. The relatives of the Emperor are in middle age at least. Haile Selassie's daughter, Tenagnework, is 76 and suffers from a stomach ulcer and chronic rheumatism. Her four daughters all suffer ill health; one, Ruth, needs treatment for skin cancer. Those cam- paigning for their release stress humanita- rian grounds and leave politics to one side.
One princess has already died in prison, and it is feared that all may end their days in the Karchele prison unless the Ethiopian regime realises that it can present a better face to the world by letting them out. Rebecca Asrate Kassa says, 'I would never suggest that emergency aid should be withheld, that is too cruel, but I do believe governments should withhold development aid until the Mengistu government does something about its atrocious human rights record.'
Just after the princesses were arrested in 1974, some 60 members of Haile Selassie's government were executed by the dergue, including Ras Asrate Kassa, Rebecca's
'It's full of coded allusions to sex and drugs.'
father. During the 'red terror' campaign of 1976-78 uncounted others died. Sybil's husband 'disappeared' from prison. The princesses were joined in their prison by young women and girls suspected of being politically unsound. Some were tortured and raped, according to Rebecca Asrate Kassa. At one time 200 were held in the room adjoining the princesses', measuring about 30' by 12'.
Conditions are particularly trying for the older or sick women. 'In the beginning we had running water only at night, so we had to fill containers with enough water for drinking, washing and the toilet, since there was no flush. We were not allowed to have any beds, and we had to sleep on mattresses on the floor.' Later, with the influx of political prisoners, their mattres- ses were trimmed to 45cm wide and had to be shared between two. Even when beds were provided for long-term political pris- oners, the princesses were left on the ground.
Without the help of the princesses' English schoolfriends others held in the prison from faraway regions of Ethiopia might have starved to death, with no food sent in by relatives. As it is, the princesses are able to share their own provisions. There is no official ban on letters being sent in, but it is clear that those which are too long or controversial never reach the cell.
The case of the prisoners has been taken up by Margaret Daly, who is the Member of the European Parliament for Somerset and Dorset West. She is also vice-chairman of the Parliament's overseas aid commit- tee. Next month she is to visit Ethiopia to see how emergency food aid from the EC is being managed, and will bring up the princesses' .plight. She has already spoken to the Ethiopian ambassador in London. Representations have also been made by Mr Christopher Patten, Minister for Over- seas Development, and Mr David Harris, the Parliamentary Private Secretary of Mrs Lynda Chalker, Minister of State at the Foreign Office. Sir Bernard Braine chaired the launching of an all-party campaign at the House of Commons last Wednesday.
A friend of Sybil Desta from her Oxford days remembers how, at the Coronation in 1953, she stayed at Buckingham Palace, and, with her cheerful and uncomplicated character, loved to entertain her college friends with tales of the trivial doings of royalty. Recently the Queen let Sybil's friends know that she 'shares in your prayers for the safety and speedy release of these prisoners'. Sybil used to go to the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall for tuto- rials in how to be a good princess in the post-war world. She seemed to have learnt her lesson well. She became vice-president of the Ethiopian Women's Welfare Associa- tion, and was an active supporter of the Save the Children Fund. It is time that she and her fellow prisoners were treated with similar enlightenment.